United We Stand. What For?

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines.)

I know what former President Ronald Reagan would have said had he learned that Russian liberals decided to unite: "There you go again."

Indeed, anyone watching Russian politics couldn’t escape an acute sense of déjà vu upon learning that four Russian opposition leaders – Mikhail Kasyanov, Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, and Vladimir Milov – have signed an agreement to form a new coalition named "For Russia without Lawlessness and Corruption." Other similar coalitions appeared and then rapidly disappeared in the past, loosely following Russia’s election cycles: Committee 2008 (2004), The Other Russia (2006), National Assembly (2008), and Solidarity (2008). Given that the faces of the four co-founders look all too familiar (perhaps, only Vladimir Milov, the leader of the "Russia’s Democratic Choice" movement, could be counted as a relative new-comer) there is little reason to expect that this time around, something will be different.

Suspiciously absent from the list of signatories was Garry Kasparov, a tireless coalition builder and the co-founder (along with Boris Nemtsov) of Solidarity. An official explanation was that Kasparov was "out of the country", yet everyone knows that given his dictatorial impulses, Kasparov would be a death sentence to any coalition. (Milov reportedly threatened his partners: "Kasparov in, me out."). On the other hand, Kasparov has name recognition and proven fund-raising abilities. With him "out", the new coalition might last longer, but achieve less.

A page-and-a-half agreement doesn’t tell much about the coalition’s ideology or long-term objectives. It however defines two major immediate goals: to nominate a single candidate for the 2012 presidential election and to form a "united democratic" political party (with the name yet to be chosen) to take part in the 2011 Duma election. Fulfilling the first goal looks doable if the spirit of cooperation will suddenly prevail – obviously not a sure thing, given that every coalition member will likely to fight for being the chosen nominee. This however doesn’t guarantee the presence of a "united democratic" presidential candidate in 2012 since any of the multiple "splinter" groups left out of the coalition may come up with their own, exotic, candidates like British citizen Vladimir Bukovsky or the Prisoner-of-Conscience-in-Chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The second goal — to form a "united democratic" party to compete in the 2011 parliamentary election — looks more like a joke, if not a deliberate fraud. To register a political party in Russia, a group has to collect at least 40,000 signatures of prospective members. Nemtsov’s Solidarity can boast no more than 4,000-5,000 members at best; Kasyanov’s People Democratic Union has even less; Ryzhkov’s unregistered Republican Party simply doesn’t exist; and Milov’s Democratic Choice represents only himself and a dozen obscure activists. In order to take part in the next year’s Duma election, the new party would have to start the registration process no later than early next year. There is no way that the coalition will be able to bring together so many supporters in such a short time. Acknowledging the problem, Ryzhkov already promised protest actions to be held should the registration of the new party be denied. It appears that these "protest actions" will turn out to be the only real outcome of the whole new party idea.

It’s commonly believed that all previous liberal coalitions had collapsed as a result of internal squabbling. This might be true, but only partly. The real reason why such coalitions don’t last is a complete detachment of Russian liberals from the interests and concerns of ordinary Russians. The first signs of this persistent detachment are already there. Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that Milov had put forward the idea of direct elections of regional governors as the cornerstone of the coalition’s political platform. Other coalition members opposed him insisting that a broader set of political demands, such as freedom of demonstrations, should be promoted instead. At the same time, the results of a recent VTSiOM poll show that the Russians consider alcohol and drug addiction, inflation, and unemployment as Russia’s three major problems. What country are Milov & Co. living in?

Russian liberals should finally realize that being a liberal doesn’t mean simply possessing a set of abstract liberal "values." It means offering liberal solutions to people’s everyday problems. Unless this happens, the new coalition will become another short-lived reminder of a popular definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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4 Responses to United We Stand. What For?

  1. Eugene says:

    Dear Roobit,
    Thank you for such a passionate comment.
    With all due respect, may I suggest that “liberal” and “libertarian” isn’t exactly the same?
    Best Regards,

  2. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Alex,
    I’m not sure I fully understand your comment. Sure, I have no illusions with regards to whose interests are promoted by United Russia. And yet, when they oppose Kudrin’s idea on increasing the retirement age, this sounds as more relevant issue than, say, the freedom of demonstrating at the TS.
    Let me put ut this way: the “liberals” should first tell us what they stand for, and we then decide whether they’re “another version of EdRo” or something else.

  3. My question remains:
    What do these people get out of it?
    As Caesar would have asked
    cui bono?
    Or Lenin
    Kto? Kogo?
    What’s their motivation?

  4. Mark says:

    You’re absolutely right, Eugene, that the Russian liberals are completely out of touch with what matters to the average Russian. I’m sure this insistence on the right to demonstrate originates with Nemtsov, because that’s what’s getting him all the face time with the press lately. It ignores the precept that if the country is being run properly and everyman’s concerns are being addressed, there’s little to demonstrate about. This coalition’s support – like that of others before it – will consist of wide-eyed idealists, chronic complainers and lazy people who hope some kind of welfare state will be adopted whereby miraculous improvements will magically come about without any real work on their part, perhaps through floods of FDI.
    When this movement predictably fails, for reasons enumerated above, it will be because it was oppressed, and was unable to get its message out. In reality, the message will have been heard all too clearly.

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